Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Waking Mishi-pishu

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Waking Mishi-pishu

I grew up in a town named Elliot Lake. In the beginning it became renown as wilderness frontier, a place with many fresh waters lake teeming with fish and game abundant. A boom had started Elliot Lake, boom brought about by the Cold war. A small wild mining town built on the Canadian shield in Northern Ontario. From 1955 when the uranium was discovered to 1996 when the last mine closed it was known as the ‘Uranium capital of the world’. The cycle of boom and bust was well known to the people of Elliot Lake, and sometimes the town was brought down to its knees, like when the United States decided to stop stockpiling uranium for weapons. That’s when the Canadian government stepped in and started stockpiling Uranium to keep a few of the mines open.
When Ontario hydro decided to buy the Uranium for its Nuclear generating stations it was boom time again, the early 1970’s. My father, a French Canadian had worked at the mines for 24 years. My mother is an Anishinabe from the reserve of Serpent River also known as Kennebutch, which roughly translates into English as ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’, hence the name Serpent River about 30 km south of Elliot Lake. The uranium deposit was discovered by world famous prospector Franc Joubin and covered a distance of about 100 sq km. The deposit about a 1000 meters underground roughly followed the geography of the river.
In the Anishinabeg world view, there is a being that we believe inhabits the Great Lakes. His name, Mishi-pishu translates closely to ‘underwater lynx’. I’ve been told that one of his abodes is beneath the Serpent River. The people of my mother would offer tobacco, asemma to Mishi-pishu any time they traveled on the water and some still do. They would fish on the North Channel of Lake Huron in the summers and take to the woods to hunt in the winters, always mindful of Mishi-pishu .
Just north of Elliot Lake, there is a place called Rooster Rock this was where the thickest part of the Uranium vein was discovered high up on a cliff. Before uranium was discovered, this was where the Anishinabeg, the people of my mother’s band, would have a sweat lodge and hold vision quests. There are pictographs painted on the cliffs, marking the significance of this place for the Anishinabeg. The power of the spirit of the earth was used to assist the spiritual journey of the people long before the arrival of Europeans. There is another mountain nearby called, Thunder Mountain, where there are giant rocks shaped like eggs and one shaped like a wolf, Maengun. Its believed that in this place was where the Thunderbirds nested. In the Anishinabeg world view it was always the Thunderbirds who held the malevolent Mishi-pishu in balance with the world. Thunderbird and Mishi-pishu are both powerful and respected. Both could be called on to assist people, but only the most brave would approach either one of them as they were held in the highest regard. There are caves beneath Serpent River where it empties into the North Channel of Lake Huron, it is said this is where Mishi-pishu resides.
Since the mines have closed, they have left behind all the tailings in what the government calls WMA’s or waste management areas. These are lakes , over a dozen of them, that the mining companies dumped mine waste into. Since these were uranium mines, that waste contains about a 150 million tones of thorium, arsenic, radium and cadmium and will take about a 140 000 years, to become habitable. By that time I suppose the White people will be on their rocket ships and off to another star. The Anishinabeg however, will remain here as they always have.
In 500 years, there are still things Europeans do not understand about Turtle Island. This is not Europe and it is not infinite. There are some things, beings best not disturbed, else the world be thrown out of balance.
I have since moved away from Elliot Lake. Many years now, my father has passed on; cancer from working in the mines. There are many miners who have since died from cancer, every miner I knew as a child has been stricken down.
My mother suffers from a brain tumor. The fish are no longer safe to eat. My grandfathers traplines have become toxic dumps where you can no longer eat the game. The water is nolonger safe to drink.
I have seen what happens when Mishi-pishu is angered because he has not been paid respect.
My home, Elliot Lake on the North Channel of Lake Huron. And what became of the home we had, not forced off the land by bullets and armies, but rapacious and reckless behavior. The home I could never go back to, I have become a refugee in my own land.
David Groulx

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David Groulx

Award-winning poet David Groulx's most recent poetry collection, Rising with a Distant Dawn, is published by BookLand Press. David’s poetry has also appeared in over a hundred periodicals in Canada, England, Australia, Germany, Austria, Turkey and the USA. He lives in Ottawa.

Go to David Groulx’s Author Page